With the recent stratospheric rise in price of Bitcoin and Ethereum (as well as many other Altcoins), cryptocurrency stories have been dominating financial news in recent months.
With more and more big businesses taking both cryptocurrencies and wider blockchain technology more seriously, some have been calling out for a change in the way educational institutions handle the subject. Traditional teaching can often be left behind in such a rapidly-moving landscape.
The University of Basel, one of Switzerland’s most prestigious universities, have been pioneering blockchain education with their very own Blockchain Challenge. A detailed seminar that aims to provide a first-class grounding in both theoretical and practical uses for blockchain. We caught up with the university to find out more.
First of all, can you tell us a bit about the University of Basel and its history?
“The University of Basel was founded in 1460 and is a comprehensive university. What I really appreciate is that diversity is a top priority here, both in research and teaching. I am an economist myself, but I am in close contact with colleagues from other faculties. This is very enriching, especially in such an interdisciplinary area.”
Can you tell us about the Blockchain Challenge and how the project came about?
“I have been teaching the bachelor’s lecture “Bitcoin, Blockchain and Cryptoassets” since 2017, as well as some other blockchain lectures and seminars. Most of them have a theoretical and methodological focus. With the Blockchain Challenge, we wanted to give the students the opportunity to put the theory learned in the lectures into practice on the basis of specific projects.
In principle, you can think of it as a longer hackathon. Companies enter specific questions, which are solved by the students on a blockchain basis. Concept papers are written, presentations are given, but smart contracts and blockchain applications are actually programmed.”
What have been some of the outstanding projects since the Blockchain Challenge started in 2018?
“All cases had their charm. In this respect, I find it difficult to single out individual projects. From tendering platforms to decentralized identities and Swiss franc-based stablecoins to various decentralized financial applications, pretty much everything was included. What is particularly exciting is the enormous variety of industries that we have every year. This in turn attracts students from a wide variety of disciplines and promotes interdisciplinary exchange among students.”
With the Blockchain Challenge taking place virtually via Zoom this year, have you noticed an increase in blockchain solutions for remote working at your partner companies?
“No. There is no remote working case included. The format had to be changed quite a bit for this year. This represents an enormous organizational effort. The Blockchain Challenge has always lived from the fact that an exchange could take place on site. Unfortunately, this is currently not possible; So far we have managed to convert the format to a virtual setting relatively well.
We owe this on the one hand to an excellent project team, the majority of which consists of students who have participated as participants in recent years. On the other hand, there are also students who are taking part this year and who, despite the special circumstances, make a highly committed impression.”
What do you hope for from blockchain technology in 2021?
“The year so far has been dominated by Layer 2 solutions, NFTs and DeFi protocols. I think these should be the main topics for the next few months. But forecasts are always such a thing and a year is an eternity in this young and innovative space.”
Financial services are currently leading the implementation of blockchain – but which other industries do you think will benefit from blockchain?
“The possible areas of application are very broad. I would find it wrong to single out individual industries. But it is of course the case that many of the currently most important applications are located in the financial sector and the DeFi boom, as well as the growing institutional interest in cryptoassets and public blockchains, seem to continue to contribute to this.
In this respect, there is a high probability that the financial industry will continue to play an important role in blockchain applications. Of course, that’s also my research focus, so it could well be that I’m a bit biased here (laughs).”
What are the main challenges for students in creating the white papers / concept papers?
“Mostly the implementation, i.e. the actual programming work. In many cases, however, also the project management and the addressee-appropriate presentation. But these are also precisely those points where we notice enormous progress over the course of the semester and are very proud of how our students develop in such a short time.”
Can you share some success stories from students who got permanent jobs thanks to taking part in the Blockchain Challenge?
“Direct job offers have occurred several times. On the one hand with the companies, on the other hand also with me at the chair. Two years ago, a team of students was also able to present their solution to the management of a very large company and after the last gala event, a team was invited to a crypto side event on the grounds of the World Economic Forum in Davos – also for a presentation.”
What has surprised you most about the blockchain industry since the start of the Blockchain Challenge?
“The companies that provide the cases are not primarily representatives of the blockchain industry, but rather classic companies. I was positively surprised at how great the company’s interest was in participating in such an event. We were literally overrun. That is a great signal and of course motivates us immensely to continue with this really huge effort. By far the greatest motivation is the feedback from the students, which has always been great so far. Ultimately, it’s about being able to offer students a very special university event that they won’t soon forget.”
The University of Basel’s Blockchain Challenge looks set to lead the way in blockchain and crypto education. As we learned, it has already had quite an impact on not just the future prospects of their students, but also the blockchain industry as a whole. This looks set to continue as blockchain grows even more over the next few years.